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Gunnison County residents turn out for early voting in the parkinglot of the Blackstock Government Building, in Gunnison on Oct. 19, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Four of the five candidates running to be the next leader of the Colorado GOP continue to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election. That’s despite all of them admitting there is no evidence of a level of fraud or wrongdoing that would have changed the outcome. 

“I believe down deep in my heart there was fraud,” Rich Mancuso, one of the candidates, said during a recent forum. “But I have no proof of it.”

Last year’s election results have become a main focus of the battle to replace outgoing Colorado GOP Chair Ken Buck, who is also a U.S. representative from Windsor. Buck is stepping down after two years leading the state party and after a 2020 election cycle in which Republicans lost even more political control in Colorado. 

The person who takes the reins from Buck will inherit a state party that is in crisis. The share of Colorado’s registered GOP voters is declining. Conservatism has been diminished in the state’s halls of power. There are big fissures about the best way to reverse the downward trend. 

Some, like former state party chair Dick Wadhams, say the last thing Colorado Republicans should be focusing on right now is 2020 election fraud when there’s no proof of it being widespread. Instead, the GOP should be figuring out how to take control of the state Senate, eject Gov. Jared Polis from his job and win back one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats from Democrats.

“I just don’t understand why we would spend any time, energy or money, frankly, on any of this at this point,” Wadhams said. “I don’t think it does our party any good to continue to focus on this.”

Graphic by Sandra Fish.

The candidates running to lead the Colorado GOP appear to acknowledge the potential peril in focusing on the past, even as they continue to raise questions about the 2020 election’s outcome.  

“As we complain more and more and more without the proof, without the evidence, we are made to look like fools in the eyes of the media and the Democrats,” said Mancuso, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress many years ago.

Supporters of President Trump gathered on all four corners at University Boulevard and Highlands Ranch Parkway on Election Night, Nov. 3, 2020, waving flags and playing music. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Scott Gessler, Colorado’s former secretary of state and another candidate running to be party chair, said during the recent forum with Mancuso and the other candidates that “I think there’s a very high likelihood the election was stolen from Trump in Nevada.”

“We did have, I think, huge problems nationally,” he said. (There has not been any proof of major problems with the 2020 election across the nation.)

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When he introduces himself at Republican Party forums, Gessler often offers that he worked as a national election integrity expert for the Trump campaign.

Kristi Burton Brown

Kristi Burton Brown, who is currently vice chair of the Colorado GOP, is less emphatic about the baseless accusation that there was so much fraud the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. But she still casts doubt on the outcome. 

“We need more answers,” she said. “A lot of people want us to take a hard-core stand and say, ‘We know something.’ But there’s not enough evidence to prove one way or the other. Yet I believe that there are very valid questions still being asked about the 2020 election.”

Casper Stockham, whose bid for GOP chair follows several unsuccessful congressional campaigns, said he was alarmed by the challenges to election results across the country. That makes him think something went wrong last year.

“I don’t know if the election was stolen,” he said. “But I feel it was.”

Jonathan Lockwood, a Republican communications consultant, is the only contender for the leadership role who has categorically denied that there was fraud or wrongdoing in the 2020 election that would have altered the results. He said questioning the vote is “irresponsible” and that conservatives need to focus on “moving forward.”

“If Republicans do not accept the fact that Joe Biden won this election and aren’t willing to say it,” he said, “we’re screwed.”

Lockwood is often attacked by other conservatives because he wrote in a Denver Post opinion piece before the November election that he was going to vote for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020. Lockwood also has faced criticism for blasting Colorado’s former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. 

After Gardner, a Republican, lost in November, Lockwood tweeted that he was glad to see the senator “get the boot from Coloradans.”

Election officials process ballots for the 2020 election at the Douglas County Office of the Clerk and Recorder in Castle Rock, CO, October 30, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

(Buck has said he has confidence in Colorado’s election processes and held a forum with Republican county clerks to reassure GOP voters. But he also signed onto a lawsuit filed in the U.S. Supreme Court by Texas that attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.)

Wadhams suspects the state chair candidates are talking so much about the 2020 election and the unfounded allegations of mass fraud and wrongdoing because that’s what the party’s base wants to hear. He conceded that “the majority of Republican activists in Colorado probably disagree with me” that the GOP needs to move on. 

“I think the state chair candidates are responding to that reality,” Wadhams said. 

Frank Teunissen, who leads the Foothills Republicans club and will help decide who is the next state GOP chair, said complaining about widespread election fraud and wrongdoing without evidence makes Republicans look like sore losers.

“Until you can actually prove something, it’s just hearsay,” he said.

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At the same time, though, he wants to make sure that people feel confident that their votes will be counted. And while Teunissen doesn’t think Republicans should make it such a focus, he doesn’t think all the election fraud talk is a problem.

“I think the people who want to focus on it, let them focus on that,” he said. 

The five candidates running to lead the Colorado GOP also debated last week how Republicans bounce back after the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that followed a speech by Trump urging a massive crowd to march to the building. Teunissen was leading a forum for the candidates and asked if the riot had hurt Republicans’ reputation in Colorado.

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Burton Brown said “violence is not appropriate in the pursuit of a political goal.” But she also said Democrats and the media were trying to use the riot “to take away our right to free speech.”

“They’ve said because a handful of people decided to be violent, therefore everyone who was out there on the sixth is a violent person,” Burton Brown said.

Gessler condemned the violence, but said there were “false media narratives” around the mob. “If you look at President Trump’s words, he did not incite violence,” Gessler said.

Mancuso said he doesn’t think Republicans’ image was tarnished in Colorado. He added that “the media in this country is our enemy.”

Stockham called the rioting “foolishness.” 

“Most of the people — even the people they have in prison right now, (that) they’re holding — they were taking selfies in chairs,” he said, “not tearing down stuff.”

Only Lockwood said Republicans have a real problem stemming from the Jan. 6 riot. “I find it ridiculous that somebody would say that this has not tarnished our brand and reputation. Thousands of voters have left the party over this issue,” he said. “This is more serious than I think a lot of people in the party are taking it.”

“The events of Jan. 6 have no place in our country,” Lockwood added. “… It wasn’t just foolish, it was bloody.”

The next chair of the Colorado GOP will be chosen by the state party’s central committee on March 27.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...